As a child, I’d pay close attention to the calendar my parents always hung in our kitchen. When’s our next trip? When does school begin? What day is Christmas this year? And I usually looked at the holidays pre-printed on most calendars. When Mom turned the page to September and October, I always wondered about Yom Kippur. No one in my family knew its significance, and I always mispronounced it, saying yum kipper. It turns out the correct pronunciation is not too far from my original but so much more poetic in its Hebrew pronunciation (yōm-ki-ˈpu̇r).
What Is Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in Judaism, one of solemn repentance when Jews seek to atone for their sins. Yom Kippur closes the Ten Days of Awe. The Ten Days of Awe begin by commemorating the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), another important day in the Jewish religious calendar. Yom Kippur marks a time for Jewish people to get ready for the upcoming year with times of confession, repentance, and fasting.
In biblical times, Yom Kippur included the sacrifice of animals when the high priest passed into the Holy of Holies. Because God instituted the observance (as recorded in Leviticus 16:29-32), its significance is very important. He told His people it’d be a statute forever, and they were not to do any work. “For on this day shall atonement be made for to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30).
The priest made atonement for the people with the sacrifices as they practiced self-denial and refrained from work. He followed a strict procedure as he bathed and then dressed in white linen attire before he entered the Holy of Holies. He presented two sin offerings, a bull for himself and his family and a goat for the people. There the priest spoke and then placed the people’s sins on the head of a second goat (scapegoat), and that goat was taken away into the wasteland.
Contemporary observant Jewish people spend time making peace with people before the Ten Days of Awe arrive. It’s their way of preparing their hearts to come before God with as pure a heart as possible.
A Yom Kippur feast usually precedes their fast during the twenty-four hours of atonement, and families often light candles in remembrance of deceased loved ones. Synagogues will have special prayers for the day.
According to Jews for Jesus, “The day of Yom Kippur itself is observed by abstaining from work and practicing self-denial, as mandated in Leviticus. In the Talmud, “self-denial” is interpreted to mean: “it is forbidden to eat or drink, or bathe or anoint oneself or wear sandals, or to indulge in conjugal intercourse” (Yoma 8.1). Abstaining from regular tasks is supposed to cause them to ponder and repent of any known sins, followed by acknowledging that they depend upon God for the remission of sins.
Does the Bible Mention Yom Kippur?
The HNV (The Hebrew Names Version of the World Messianic Bible) translates Leviticus 23:27-28 and 25:9 as Yom Kippur. Other versions, such as the ESV and the NKJV, render the term as the Day of Atonement.
When Is Yom Kippur This Year?
The observance of Yom Kippur occurs annually on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (or Tishri), the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. This year’s remembrance begins on the evening of October 4 and ends on the evening of October 5.
What Can We Learn from Yom Kippur?
We, as Christians, can follow some of the Yom Kippur customs to better appreciate our Lord and Savior Jesus.
The actions of reconciliation during the time preceding Yom Kippur remind us that we should be at peace with whomever we can (Romans 12:18).
Repentance should be an ongoing practice, for we remain sinners (1 John 1:9). God, in His mercy, hears our prayers of remorse from a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17; 1 Peter 3:12).
Fasting is a very good discipline that turns our focus on the Lord. When we cease regular activities (such as work or eating), we soon dismiss the hunger and activity pangs and quiet ourselves before the Lord.
Reflecting on the Lord’s sacrifice will steady our hearts and turn our sorrows and anxieties into joy, knowing Christ has done what we never could.
When we read our Bibles, we should do it with a Christocentric mindset: we look at everything in the Bible that points to Him. A highly recommended book, Christ from Beginning to End by Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum, describes how the covering of human sin had to have a constant, intricate system. Only one man could enter into the Holy of Holies and only once a year. Year after year, the same thing.
The high priest could not do more than submit a yearly offering for their sins. Wellum and Hunter add that that system pointed to something (actually someone) greater whose atoning sacrifice eclipsed and removed the need for the sacrifices of Yom Kippur. That someone was Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:10). He was—as it were—hidden in the animal that carried their sins away. Except He was a permanent sacrifice.
For Christians, to regard Yom Kippur and its observance is an opportunity to meditate on how God used it to foreshadow Jesus’ work on the cross. Just as the high priest sent the scapegoat out of the camp, Jesus was judged by the Jewish leaders, and they led Him outside Jerusalem to His crucifixion and death. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Our sin debt is paid by Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44).
How Can We Share Christ’s Atonement With our Jewish Friends?
We must make the most of every opportunity to share the Gospel, even with those who doubt Christianity. People of the Jewish faith often fall into this category. But we need to go forth prepared. Knowing what we now do about Yom Kippur is a great starting point. Beyond that, time in the Bible is mandatory. We learn all about our Savior in Scripture, even how the Old Testament points to Christ’s fulfillment of over 300 prophecies.
Start by praying before you meet with a Jewish friend. Prayer is always our best offense and defense. Ask questions about their holidays and why they celebrate them. If you greet a Jewish friend around the Day of Atonement, remember it’s a solemn time for them. It’s best not to say, “Happy Yom Kippur.”
Some Jews are hostile toward Christianity, which is understandable given the messy history of antisemitism in Christian countries. However, with prayer, compassion, and genuine interest in them, God may turn the handle of that door which He always keeps open when we seek to tell others about Jesus.
Because of how they feel, accounts from the New Testament, such as Jesus’ interaction with a Samaritan woman, might pique their interest. Two good books that cover this subject include Engaging Jewish People by Randy Newman and Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus by Michael L. Brown.
In whatever way the Lord allows a conversation to happen, be ready to yield to the Holy Spirit. You will know when to back off and when to move forward. Above all, let them see Jesus in you.
A Prayer for Witnessing to a Jewish Person
Almighty Father, thank You for giving us Your Word in the Bible and the Person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We thank You for calling us to You and for Your Spirit who gives us words when we cannot find them in and of ourselves. Jesus told us to tell everyone about Him. We love our Jewish friends and long for them to surrender to You. When You give us the chance to share Jesus with a Jewish friend, please help us to be compassionate in listening and in sharing. Please prepare their hearts for Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Amen.